Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Cyberbullying: an anthropological take

I was asked recently to provide an anthropological take on childhood cyberbullying by IDG Connect. The article is here (http://www.idgconnect.com/abstract/9950/are-sexting-cyberbullying-worse-offline-versions) and my full commentary is below…

Prominent social scientist danah boyd* has pointed out that childhood bullying is not rising historically speaking and the internet has not caused it to rise noticeably. School is invariably still reported as the place bullying mostly happens and causes the most harm. What happens over social media often perpetuates what happens in school.

Elana Centor Attribution ShareAlike licence



The crucial difference that fuels the concern about cyberbullying is visibility. Parents have little insight into what happens offline but online interactions leave digital traces. These traces are difficult to interpret for an adult and can lead to the wrong, potentially more serious, conclusions about their effect. Moreover, online interactions with peers and any emotional fallout often happen in a domestic setting, the kind of setting children are confined to as a result of adult restrictions on and fears about children being in public spaces.

The internet is a convenient whipping boy for the persistent problem of bullying. But really addressing bullying and improving children’s mental health doesn’t mean banning the use of the internet by a child or necessarily having greater controls over its use - after all school is an ostensibly adult-controlled space and look what happens there. It means adults investing a lot more time and effort in educating about healthy relationships and empathy to produce individuals who are capable of both withstanding and refraining from bullying. It also means providing meaningful support that works with youths’ desire to be seen to be in control when bullying happens. 

That sounds a lot like hard work but hopefully the prominence accorded to cyberbullying won’t detract from the more considered and less kneejerk reactions from people who have bothered to look at the phenomenon through the lens of people involved.

*Marwick, Alice and danah boyd. (2014). "'It's just drama': Teen perspectives on conflict and aggression in a networked era." Journal of Youth Studies 17(9): 1187-1204.